Forget, for a moment, the rare white tiger and endangered dormouse; grieve rather for the crimson-flowered broad bean, Champion of England pea, Bath cos lettuce and Rowsham Park "hero" onion. This last was not quite heroic enough; we will not see its like again. All these veg have bitten the dust, just a few of the 300,000 species lost to the world in the past century. A variety is lost every hour – and extinct veg are just the tip of the culinary iceberg.
In Britain, our delicious, centuries-old and unique breeds of apples, damsons and cherries have long been at risk. We recently came close to losing several rare heritage spuds which make such great roasties, while our red grouse remains under threat, despite being considered the finest game bird in the world.
And if it hadn't been for a culinary Noah's Ark initiative, the very Somerset cheddar on which our reputation as a cheese-making nation was founded would have disappeared years ago into a price-conscious, provenance-indifferent commercial quicksand.
"Intensive production methods and excessive legislation mean we are losing so many of our traditional foods," sighs Sue Braithwaite, chair of the Ark of Taste, created by Slow Food, a global movement which glorifies artisan edibles and the cultural traditions they represent. "It's as simple as eat it or lose it – and we've already lost an awful lot."
Hence the Ark, Slow Food's last-chance saloon for Britain's neglected produce and 900 illustrious foreign counterparts. This is the vessel of hope into which the tastiest – and most endangered – regional foods around the globe have been metaphorically deposited in an attempt to highlight their attributes and save them from dying out. "The producers who swim against the tide need our help in explaining why their products are special and cost more to make than their mass-produced counterparts," explains Braithwaite.
Given the rush in Britain to embrace farm shops, farmers' markets and the rise of urban food halls, which bring the best of the country to town, you'd think we wouldn't need a European initiative like Slow Food – which Braithwaite admits can seem precious and elitist in its aims – to save our delicacies. Growers have done it with items such as watercress, near death a decade ago, while Waitrose claims it single-handedly rescued a slew of rare breed spuds from extinction.
But the public speaks with jaded tastebuds – and the truth is, says Braithwaite, that we are a nation of gastronomic magpies. "Since Ezliabethan times, we've had a history of explorers bringing foods back from foreign places and integrating them into our cuisine, instead of being regionally focused. We've enjoyed wider and more varied influences, but we have lost our localised traditions. We like to try new things and we let older things go."
One near-fatal casualty of our disregard for regional provenance is that virtually all British cheddar now comes from anywhere but Somerset, where it originated in the 19th century. "Our grandparents would abhor what it has become today in the public perception – a sweetish cheese made from pasteurised milk, with other flavours introduced," says George Keen, whose great-aunt first made cheddar on the family farm in 1899. "She would not recognise what is sold under that name now as cheddar," he sighs gloomily.
Keen's is one of only three artisan producers of the cheese left in Somerset, which once supported 400. The firm was encouraged by Slow Food to join forces with two neighbouring cheese makers, Montgomery – which just took the top prize for cheddar at the British Cheese Awards against 118 competitors – and Westcombe, at a time when it looked as though mooted legislation against unpasteurised cheese could put them out of business.
"The movement talking up the attributes of the cheese added weight to our battle against the legislators, and stopped the Food Standards Agency bringing more trouble to the table," says James Montgomery, whose family celebrates a century of Somerset cheddar-making in 2011. Slow Food helped him, through their global network, reach a European market appreciative of raw milk cheese.
"Since we went into the Ark nine years ago, we have seen our business quadruple in Europe, which has taken up the bulk of our extra production," says Montgomery, who had been looking for a way to stay in business that didn't involve mistreatment by hard-nosed chains. "We supplied Tesco until they dropped us without informing us, and we de-listed Sainsburys when they started charging us for all the bits they threw away in their cutting room when carving the cheese into neat blocks." Montgomery now has a limited presence in Waitrose, while Keen's is sold in Sainsburys.
"There is the issue that some people find unpasteurised cheddar a daunting prospect," says cheese buyer Finbar Cartlidge, who describes Keen's as earthy and grassy. "However, people who are knowledgeable about cheese do want it for their cheeseboard."
Far older a phenomenon than the Edwardian truckles of Somerset is the Shropshire prune, grown for centuries in hedgerows. "It was a cash crop for smallholders, shipped by the ton to London, Birmingham and Manchester within living memory before demand fell off," says Ludlow-based farmer Sue Chantler of the latest product welcomed into the Ark.
But growing as much as possible to make jam is not the answer, she insists: "We need to interest younger people with forward-looking ideas in finding innovative ways to bring an old product into a modern market." The result of involving young chefs has produced recipes which use the prunes – actually damsons – raw in a zesty salsa to accompany pork, or combined as a rich preserve with Ludlow blue cheese to make a yummy snack.
Next for success, it's hoped, is Formby asparagus, nearly extinct but enjoying a resurgence of planting in sandy soil around Liverpool. It is going to be a lot harder to save Britain's red grouse, given that the heather moorland it grazes on is itself under threat, but Slow Food has relaunched it in the UK Ark, which foundered on a reef of bureaucracy since its introduction around 15 years ago.
"We are in a moment when Brits are more interested in rediscovering our culinary traditions," Braithwaite says. "We want people to get information from their grandmothers about how to prepare local foods they grew up with before that knowledge is lost for ever."
It doesn't hurt that we are also in a moment when supermarkets believe they can earn Brownie points by championing local food. Think of all those Waitrose ads glorifying their artisan producers and its South of England displays featuring the bounty of Kent, Sussex, Hampshire and Dorset.
Waitrose is not unique in this strategy: "Booths, which has 26 stores in the North of England, is a partner of Slow Food," says Braithwaite. "They pride themselves in stocking 70 per cent foods of the region, and have an enormous influence on their customers." But it also takes the will of multicultural Brits addicted to having a huge range of exotic produce at their fingertips to ditch the magpie tendency: "We'd like to see people excited about foods coming into season instead of expecting to buy them year round."
This would, of course, require a massive tastebud re-education. For every foodie slavering in anticipation of the short spring season for British asparagus and other homegrown treats which really do taste better than those which have flown thousands of miles, there are 100 aspirational cooks wanting spears to garnish dinner-party plates in November or January. Ark or no Ark, they will continue to buy year-round varieties from exotic climes.
THE EDIBLES WENT IN TWO BY TWO
* To qualify for entry into the Ark, food products must be: outstanding in taste, traditionally produced, historically linked to a specific area and produced in limited quantities.
* Once accepted, Slow Food groups around the country support producers with awareness-raising events and news of products within the Ark is spread abroad by the Slow Food newsletter. But producers are not allowed to use the movement's logo on their packaging as endorsement.
* The British Ark contains 26 products. These include Fal and Colchester oysters, Morecambe Bay shrimps and Windermere char in the seafood department; meat sources include Herdwick sheep, Manx Loaghtan lamb, Lincoln Longwool sheep and Old Gloucester cattle, as well as red grouse. Unpasteurised Cheshire cheese, double curd Lancashire, Single and Double Gloucester (only from Gloucester cattle) and Dorset Blue Vinny share the dairy compartment with Somerset artisan cheddar. Drinks include Three Counties Perry from the Midlands and Somerset cider brandy.
* Because Britain maintains comprehensive seed libraries, we have fewer produce varieties under threat than many countries, but the Ark contains Kentish cobnuts, traditionally produced Jersey Royal potatoes, Formby asparagus, Lyth Valley damsons and the Shropshire Prune.Reuse content